The Chester County Restaurant Festival returns to downtown West Chester for its 33rd year on Sunday, September 16th, 2012. Back by popular demand is the Chester County Culinary Cookoff, which vies four notable, locals chefs against one another — all battling for the title of “Best Chester County Chef.”

Hailing from the historic Main Line is Chef Phil Dersch of The General Warren Inne. Spending time with him is always a treat, especially when his cuisine is involved. He prides himself in taking classics to the next level by incorporating elements never thought of before. His dishes continuously excite diners’ palates as fresh and new ideas make their way to the kitchen every day. Although a huge fan of duck, you’ll find this culinary master working with various ingredients, but shying away from bananas whenever he can.

What are your feelings as you head into the Culinary Challenge for the first time ever? Have you been in any competition like this before?

Chef Phil Dersch: I did a Crab Cookoff in 2006 at The Desmond and I won. I’m feeling similar to that but I like being around the people so I’m not too worried. I’m definitely the youngest in this competition but I’m used to that from my past kitchen experiences. I never feel like I have to prove people wrong, or that they don’t believe in me but I just love proving to myself that I can do it. The first time I thought about it was today to be honest. All I’m thinking is I’m going to mess around with some stuff and have some fun.

The winner of this competition will hold the title of “Best Chef in Chester County” and it’s been Chef Jon of Amani’s BYOB the past two years. What characteristics do you think a chef needs to possess to be “the best,” not just in this competition but in his own kitchen?

PD: Working hard. Every day. I think being able to think on your feet is a huge attribute because we’re not just in here [the kitchen] cooking. We come in and get 80 plus questions a day. There are substitutions, people want to switch this or do that and it’s not always food related. We deal with pricing and other tasks as well.

The Culinary Challenge presents a “think on your feet” scenario. In every day situations at the restaurant are you prone to operating that way or prefer to plan ahead?

PD: I love thinking on my feet. I plan ahead on nothing. Well, not nothing. I do plan ahead on specials but by the time I get in the kitchen and I’m presented with new ingredients or something fresh from the garden, I come up with a totally new special. By the time I go in to create what I was originally thinking about, the idea has morphed. It’s not that I don’t stick to anything, it’s just an ongoing process and spur of the moment cooking plays a big part in that process. It always turns out good!

While a Chef like you is skilled in many departments, what is one surprise ingredient you would prefer NOT to receive, either because of a personal preference or general difficulty?

PD: Bananas. I’m allergic to them. I always hated them and I recently found out why. I can touch them but I can’t taste them. A lot of fruit gives me “issues,” actually, but I love it, especially in a homemade salad dressing so it’s hard. Besides bananas, I’ll take anything. Surprise me. That’s the point right? I would even take bananas but I wouldn’t be able to taste what I’m putting out.

Surprise ingredient means extra points. So would you not use it because it jeopardizes a dish you had planned or is there always a way to incorporate ingredients?

PD: Of course I’d like to use it. No, I think everybody is going to try to use it. These are amazing chefs and nice restaurants. They’ll know how to incorporate it. I’m always thinking as abstract as possible. The weirder the ingredients, the better. That’s what I try to do every day. I’m always wondering what don’t people normally do and then I try to do it. Like our new Duck Filet Burger. It’s amazing and starts on next week’s fall menu.

Think “show up at the airport with no ID.” What’s one kitchen tool you’d have a hard time competing without?

PD: Fish spatula. A knife is key, too,but a fish spatula has a flat edge so you can cut stuff with it if you push hard enough, flip things, stir stuff. I know that answer is different than what most chefs would say but I’m sticking with it.

 Food photographs credited to Nina Lea Photography